Florida Tornado Victims Hear Words of Hope From Ruined Pulpit

Though Elden Jefferson's concrete block home had suffered roof and wall damage that needed his attention, he and his wife felt the need to go to church — what was left of it.

The Jeffersons were among the 100 people who gathered at the wreckage of the Lady Lake Church of God for a Sunday service, three days after tornadoes killed 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

"We felt this is where we needed to be today for ourselves, for other people, for this church," Jefferson said. The Rev. Larry Lynn preached from a makeshift wooden platform where a broken cross was propped up next to an American flag.

"We grieve with you and there will be days that life will wear you down," Lynn said. "But life does go on and we're here to help you pull it together. Don't let bitterness set in."

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A gospel choir sang and clapped on the makeshift stage under sunny skies.

"It's sad because, you know, you think 'Next Sunday, I'm going to go to church, but it's not there any more.' But the building can be replaced. We still have the family of people," said Joy Newton, 53, whose home in The Villages retirement community nearby escaped damage.

Gov. Charlie Crist, handling his first natural disaster since taking office last month, also attended Sunday's service. He canceled plans to attend Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami, which included a pre-game moment of silence in memory of the storm's victims.

Crist later told reporters that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had kept its promise to help quickly, unlike its tardy response as New Orleans slid into chaos after Hurricane Katrina.

"There's no question about it. This isn't Louisiana. This is Florida. They really come in here and come in here strong," said Crist.

President Bush has designated Lake, Sumter, Seminole and Volusia counties as disaster areas eligible for millions of dollars in aid and loans. Early estimates showed at least $68 million in property losses and about 1,300 homes and buildings damaged or destroyed in Lake, Sumter and Volusia counties.

FEMA and state emergency managers opened a disaster recovery center Sunday near Lady Lake to hand out aid and provide counseling. About 200 FEMA workers were in the area, spokesman James McIntyre said. The agency sent emergency supplies such as generators, water, tarps, but the state also had its own inventory.

About 50 National Guard troops, residents and volunteers helped with the cleanup. The Salvation Army had mobile canteens to provide counseling and meals to residents and rescue workers. More than 50 low-risk uniformed jail inmates helped remove debris.

Lynn Whitehead cried as she salvaged items from the ruined, blue home she and her husband Billy had lived in for 28 years. A volunteer construction crew nailed tarps over the gaping holes in their roof.

Family members brought chain saws and tractors to cut down trees and clear debris that had fallen on the home, where the Whiteheads and their five young grandchildren rode out the storm huddled in the bathroom.

"For so many people to give their time and effort for people they don't even know, there really are some good people out there," Lynn Whitehead said. "I've seen the community come together like you wouldn't believe."

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